Long Centurys

Thoughts from Jack Lynch regarding separating things into literary periods

via email on the C18-L list 12/6/01

Few ages have clear boundaries between them; even big, obvious dates like 1660 (Restoration), 1688/89 (Glorious &c.), 1700 (new century and death of Dryden), 1789 (French &c.), and 1798 (_Lyrical Ballads_) — they seem to be favorite termini a quo et ad quem for anthologies and survey courses-are nothing more than convenient but arbitrary dates.

I love questions like this, in both research and teaching. I like to begin 18th-c. courses by talking about what “18th c.” means-our notorious “long” century, and why we divide things into periods at all. I spent part of our first class this semester talking with my graduate students about the different kinds of epochal markers we use (political, literary, &c.). To make the problem more tangible, I like to ask when the American eighties began and ended (far enough away to have historical shape, near enough to be remembered). They realize 1 January 1980 and 31 December 1989 aren’t really satisfying, and start suggesting other kinds of boundaries: the Reagan and Bush years (or was George I of the ’90s?); the Sex Pistols’ first album through Nirvana’s Nevermind; that sort of thing.I raised the question of when America’s twenty-first century started, and we agreed that in 2001 we really can’t tell-some epochal event may be right around the corner, making 2007 or 2014 the place from which new calculations begin.

That was on 4 September 2001. Class met again two weeks later, when a student began by saying, “I guess we know now when the twenty-first century really began.”

This was just so well put that I had to save it.